Journalism and disruption: Change is easy and hard

With nearly 20 years of digital journalism experience, I’ve been through a lot of change in the industry and, editorially, 2013 reminds me a lot of the late 1990s. We’re seeing a lot of editorial experimentation – drones, Google Glass and all kinds of data journalism. I lived through an earlier era when editorial innovation exploded, and I hacked together a lot of projects using all kinds of technology and web services during my time as a field journalist for the BBC and digital editor at The Guardian. With the mobile, multimedia and web technology in 2013, these digital projects can seem easy and effortless (especially compared to the duct tape and spit we had to use in the early days).

However, it would be a mistake to think that just because it’s easier than ever to produce amazing digital editorial experiences that this makes organisational change easy. It takes an entirely different set of skills to get buy-in from stakeholders or to Jedi mind trick the empire builders of senior management. It is hard, and even I underestimated the size and nature of the challenge as I transitioned from young digital maverick field journalist to digital editor in the middle of the last decade.

While a lot is different in 2013 than it was in 1996 when I started in digital journalism, or even than it was five or six years ago, change still is hard. In some ways, it is even harder now as most newspapers struggle with redeploying diminishing resources carefully from the core business to new digital initiatives. The politics are fierce. Even when it is in an organisation’s best interest, even when it is an organisation’s stated interest to embrace digital, winning the political and cultural battles is hard, thankless work. I know people who stayed and fought these battles inside organisations, and I have deep respect for them and learn from them whenever possible. When I return to working for an organisation, hopefully soon, I will take lessons that I’ve learned from these friends.

If you want to know how hard it is, it’s really worth reading an article by David Cadogan at The Canadian Journalism Project. I love the piece because it takes me back to my own early days in digital journalism, the days of dial-up internet and lots of hacked together solutions, just with much, much more primitive technology. He writes:

In November of 1997, we put my flagship paper, the Miramichi Leader, online with a piece of off-the-shelf software our web press company manager found. By that time, our readers had 28k or 56k dial-up modems and access to Internet. Still, we could publish only stories, pictures and classified ads. A full-page colour ad would have taken more than a day to download.

I remember how exciting it was to push the limits of what we could do with the technology we had. For example, working on a video project for the BBC a year after the September 11 attacks I shot and edited video on my laptop, and then went out to dinner as my computer compressed the video to send via a very slow connection to London.

David talks about online subscriptions, message boards and even user generated story ides. This was in the late 1990s, about the same time I joined the BBC, and we were doing very similar work. I loved it. It played to my passion for journalism, technology and exploring news ways of storytelling. I still get excited thinking about what we achieved.

In the final section of the article, David says twice that he failed. “I failed abjectly at trying to get newspapers to buy into these opportunities,” he says. He was a publisher, investor and newspaper association director. He had industry connections and some of his own resources, and yet he couldn’t convince other publishers to embrace digital opportunities and get ahead of digital disruption. It was, and it often still is, incredibly hard to convince people to change, particularly when the full impact of new technology, in this case the Internet, isn’t yet obvious. I’ve heard stories like David’s from editors and managers across the industry, and I have a few of my own.

When I took the buyout from The Guardian in 2010, I felt sad because I knew that as a digital journalist with 15 years of online experience, that there was so much more I could have done had I been able to figure the secret handshake that unlocked resources and strategic support. I often joke that at The Guardian, anything was possible for me as long as it required no staff and no budget.

I do think that 2013 is a different era, because major organisations have stated that their goal is to focus on digital. There are news orgs that say they are digital first, and that was really rare in 2006. The direction of travel is, without doubt, towards digital.

A lot of young journalists will be like I was in the mid-1990s, able to work on exciting projects that push the boundaries of journalism and engagement. But move away from the coal face, and battles over digital, over change, are still happening. These battles are not unique to just one or two organisations, they are commonplace across the industry (and across many other industries too).

I’ve learned a lot during my work as a consultant about how to help organisations change. I can’t wait to take this experience to my next job. I’ve still got the passion and the fire for creating the future of journalism, but I have a few new tricks, beyond being geekier than the average journalist, to move the dial of organisational change in the right direction.

David’s article is also is important for young digital journalists to realise that there were a lot of innovators who fought, and sadly often lost the battle, to help newspapers respond to digital disruption. To believe that you are the first generation of digital guerrillas is to be ignorant of journalism’s history. I started in digital journalism in 1996, and I count true digital pioneers from a generation before me as mentors and friends. My work and the work of the current generation of digital journalists is built on their shoulders. All of us from those early days can look back and see points where we failed to bring about the change we wanted, but I salute David and so many others like him. They might not have achieved all of their ambitions, but they made this new era of digital journalism possible. You, sir, did not fail.

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